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U.S. passes renewed Compact with Marshall Islands, other Pacific nations

Flag of the Republic of the Marshall Islands
Flag of the Republic of the Marshall Islands

After a five-month delay, President Joe Biden has signed into law the latest version of the Compact of Free Association (or COFA) agreements for the Marshall Islands, Palau and the Federated States of Micronesia.

The U.S. senate approved the $7.1 billion dollars in funding as part of a larger $460 billion dollar omnibus bill. The package includes special funds on climate change and additional health care needs under the Compact Impact Fairness Act. $2.3 billion dollars of that total will go to Marshallese citizens. Melisa Laelan is CEO the Arkansas Coalition of Marshallese and said this is a victory years in the making.

"I feel celebrated," she said. " It took over 25 years to fix a very simple mistake in oversight of the congress, so you can imagine all the hard work we've been doing on the ground."

Arkansas is home to nearly 12,000 Marshallese people, the largest population outside of the Marshall Islands, according to the most recent U.S. Census data.
Under the compact agreement, first signed in 1986, the U.S. maintains a strategic military base on the Islands in exchange for providing economic assistance and allowing islanders to live and work in the U.S. without a visa.

The new 20-year agreement extends eligibility for some health care benefits and federal assistance, most notably for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program or SNAP.

"We do have over 3,000 children attending the Springdale schools, that we born in the Marshall Islands and did not have access," Laelan said. "Now they will."

U.S. Representative for Arkansas, Bruce Westerman serves as chair of the House Committee on Natural Resources and brought the legislative amendment to congress in the fall of 2023. In a press release, Westerman praised the legislation as a national security measure against China.

"This marks a historic step in our work to support our allies in the Indo-Pacific region and counter the increasing aggression of the People's Republic of China under the Chinese Communist Party," Westerman said.

The next step for COFA citizens is getting people who qualify for these new benefits aware and enrolled. And while Laelan said the renewed compact is a win, she believes there is still work to be done.

"Dual citizenship as well as more on the nuclear legacy side," she said. "But overall [we feel] relieved, and feel appreciated for sure."

Listen to the full conversation with Melisa Laelan below.

Melisa Laelan reacts to COFA agreement

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Daniel Caruth is KUAF's Morning Edition host and reporter for Ozarks at Large<i>.</i>
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